DJ Irene spins new class on campus

Legendary DJ brings the beat to a new generation of students at Valley College.

By Aimee Martinez, Staff Writer

In Music 270, DJ equipment is set on a table, two speakers on either side. Irene Gutierrez approaches the controller system and fiddles with the knobs, headphones around her neck. Beats reverberate from the speakers and the students gather to observe her as she warms up. Heads bob to the beats seamlessly mixed together. Glasses move on and off as she pauses and analyzes her next moves. The pulse quickens but stops just as it is about to hit the climax. DJ Irene has just emerged. Now the teaching begins.

At 8 years old, Gutierrez was already involved with music, playing the clarinet and various percussion instruments. Her love for music expanded when she discovered 12-inch vinyl singles; some of her collection including those from the disco era. Over the years, her music has spanned genres like electronica, progressive dance, hard house, dubstep, and trance music.

After asking many DJs to teach her and getting rejected, she met Henry Delapeña, a DJ from Circus nightclub. She showed him her songs and he taught her how to play in the garage of his house.

“That whole summer, I practiced everyday for eight to 10 hours while he was playing cards with the kids of the neighborhood,” said Gutierrez.

For 15 years, she worked at the Hollywood club Circus Disco under owner Gene La Pietra. There she learned how to read and please a crowd as well as a sobering truth.

Gutierrez had been working Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. One Sunday, exhausted after moving, she had a bad set.

“That following Tuesday, [La Pietra] saw me and said, ‘Don’t take this personally; this is business,’” recalls Gutierrez. “‘You’re not working on Sundays anymore’ and walked away.”

She learned quickly that you cannot have a bad night. In 1991, Gutierrez began DJing at the Arena nightclub right at the cusp of closing down due to a lack of attendance. She brought the tradition of Circus but made it her own and, within a month, attendance spiked from 900 to 2,500 people.

Eventually, the number grew to 6,000 on Friday nights. She played there for 11 years. The attendees named the club, Irena.

Photo by Solomon Smith/The Valley Star

“Arena was a place where you could just be yourself,” said Gutierrez. “It didn’t matter what color you were or what your sexuality was. Everybody got along. It was safe.”

Thump, a former magazine run by Vice, listed DJ Irene as one of their top 20 gay DJs of all time. Though Gutierrez has been very open about her sexuality, she doesn’t view it as a novelty.

“I never thought about my sexuality,” said Gutierrez. “That’s just who I am. It was all about my energy and how I learned to put that in my music and making sure everyone had a good time.”

While getting a Master’s degree in commercial music from Cal State LA, Gutierrez wanted to offer affordable teaching on how to DJ. Some of the schools she saw charged up to $25,000. Richard Kahn, a music instructor at Valley College, proposed to her his idea of starting a DJ workshop program, which Gutierrez helped co-develop.

“I’m a DJ too, so I was looking for some DJ courses but all of them for the most part were private colleges that were $50,000 and $30,000,” said 20-year-old student Jacob Cherry. “This was the only public option I found that offers this high level course where they have top level equipment and a really amazing teacher.”

DJ Irene is still working on her music when she has time in her busy schedule. But as soon as the semester is over, she plans to jump back into the studio and experiment with some new sounds.